Bill Clinton's Flawed Legacy on Bin Laden

A week after Bill Clinton lashed out at anchor Chris Wallace’s questioning on "Fox News Sunday," prominent Democrats were still debating among themselves whether the former president’s performance was good or bad for their party. However, they all disregarded a harsh but widely overlooked rebuke of Clinton the next morning.

On Sunday, Clinton assailed Wallace for "your nice little conservative hit job on me" in questioning his determination as president to get Osama bin Laden. On CBS’s "Early Show" Monday, the head of the CIA’s bin Laden unit during the Clinton administration, Michael Scheuer, said the al Qaeda leader "is alive today" because Clinton and his top lieutenants refused to kill him. "It’s just an incredible kind of situation," said Scheuer, "for the American people over the weekend to hear their former president mislead them."

Scheuer’s blunt remonstrance goes to the heart of what probably impelled Clinton’s finger-pointing on national television. Rather than attempting to shape the midterm campaign, as Republicans believe, he was interested in protecting his legacy. No former president in the last half-century has seemed so sensitive to critical assessments of his tenure.

That was demonstrated in the recent New Yorker article about Clinton by the magazine’s editor, David Remnick. He reported a 20-minute Clinton tirade, at a dinner with virtual strangers in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, about the Whitewater investigation that led to his impeachment. Earlier, Remnick described Clinton as "infuriated by the way the [Bush] administration’s rhetoric painted anyone who criticized any aspect of its policy in Iraq as weak on national security."

Clinton grows doubly infuriated by implication of such weakness by him during his presidency. Although the intensity of his outburst against Wallace was unplanned, Clinton was ready to upbraid anybody who questioned his performance. Unexpected by the former president was a rebuttal, not by a Republican partisan, but a CIA professional never confused with being a Bush acolyte.

Scheuer resigned from the CIA in 2004 after 22 years’ service to publish, at first anonymously, "Imperial Hubris" — a withering assault on performances by both Clinton and Bush. As a critic of Israel and Saudi Arabia alike, Scheuer fits no conventional ideological mold.

In his role of CBS News terrorism analyst, Scheuer was asked Monday to comment on Clinton’s Sunday performance and provided more than his questioner apparently bargained for. To claim that the CIA could not verify that bin Laden was responsible for the attack on the USS Cole, said Scheuer, "the former president seems able to deny facts with impunity."

Scheuer continued: "He defames the CIA . . . and the men and women who risked their lives to give their administration repeated chances to kill bin Laden." Asked whether Bush was no less responsible for letting bin Laden escape from Tora Bora in Afghanistan, Scheuer replied: "The fact of the matter is that the Bush administration had one chance that they botched, and the Clinton administration had eight to 10 chances that they refused to try. At least at Tora Bora, our forces were on the ground."

What Clinton as president did or did not do about bin Laden is less relevant to Democratic politicians than its impact on the midterm elections. While most applauded the former president for energizing Democratic voters, one of the party’s shrewdest strategists told me it was a mistake to remove political focus from the biggest Republican liability: the war in Iraq.

Republican insiders, meanwhile, saw a Democratic plot, mapped by Clinton’s longtime political advisers, James Carville and Paul Begala, to blunt the GOP comeback. On NBC’s "Today" program, they agreed that their chief had just stiffened the backbone of Democrats. "Good Dr. Clinton gave us a spinal transplant on Sunday," Begala exulted.

Actually, Scheuer delivered a message that is uncongenial to Democrats and Republicans alike: "Both President Bush and President Clinton have been very misleading to the American people, telling them we’re at war because of our freedoms and our liberties and because of gender equality and because of elections. None of that is true. We’re at war because of what we do in the Islamic world." Those words go unheard by politicians seeking advantage in the midterm elections.